Talk Like a Girl

Consider Láadan, a conlang created by Suzette Haden Elgin. The grammar starts out with an essay that I find frankly laughable: that women can’t talk in English, essentially. The idea is that it’s too hard in pretty much any natural language to express the things women find important.

For one thing, it annoys me that what Elgin seems to think is important to women is primarily emotion and God. Then there’s the comment that, for “female” concepts, one must use a phrase instead of a single word, e.g. “sadness for good reasons, but about which nothing can be done”. So what? There are “male” concepts aplenty that need phrases (to make something up that she’d likely think appropriate, “the annoyance of being attracted to a woman who belongs to a more powerful man”), but that doesn’ t make it harder for men to talk about them. She then moves on to the blindingly stupid idea that, merely by learning to speak Láadan, women will change themselves so thoroughly that they’ll change the world too.
I’m not joking; she uses the idea in her series Native Tongue. Being able to speak the “womanlanguage” (no, I’m not omitting a space) makes the grindingly opressed female linguists so nifty that they can manipulate their husbands in the same invisible way their husbands manipulate non-linguists. From there they go on to a series of increasingly silly exploits such as planting undercover agents in nunneries, which end, in the completely incoherent Earthsong, with them discovering how to feed the world on music.

I wish I were exaggerating.

But back to Láadan itself. Having given us the idea of a nigh-mystical power inherent in her language, Elgin goes on to present us with something pretty pedestrian. It’s well enough done, as conlangs go; there are a number of ideas in it that are handy, like a particular sound, the lateral fricative lh (or ll, if you’re Welsh) that can be attached to any word to make it pejorative: with, woman; withelh, contemptible woman (which example, by the way, I have picked because it’s the only word I am sure of, being without my book). But then as one goes through the grammar one begins to notice the weirdnesses. “There’s no word in English for what a woman does during sexual intercourse.” Hell there isn’t; she fucks, or has sex, or makes love, just like her partner. The word in the lexicon with a three-paragraph definition that discusses the “average woman”–a sad sack who refuses to take responsibility for her own life, bewails her lack of control, and overeats to compensate. That the word for ‘cradle’ is derived from the word for ‘vagina’. That Elgin’s taken the good old Newspeak way of making antonyms: there’s no ‘young’, only ‘not old’, and ‘cold’ is ‘not warm’, and so forth. This isn’t to say the problems are unfixable, but I’m not personally all revved up to learn something that’s less useful than, say, Klingon. It may be a fine idea and a decent implementation, but I really can’t see anyone getting past the feminist-dichotomy “we’re utter victims who have the power to change the world” mindset to actually learn the language.

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